My fortnight of solitude: the power of retreat

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I could have gone anywhere —  as far away as I wanted. My spouse had given me the gift of solitary retreat; I certainly had enough frequent flyer miles to take to any hemisphere. And my colleagues wholeheartedly supported what could be seen as a monastic form of rehab, a creative top-up.

Twenty years ago, I engaged in a similar solo trek that was intended as a professional “break” from my work at NBC News in New York City. I told my managers that upon my return from India, unless they could come up with an overseas posting for me, I would most likely leave the network. My hubris paid off: soon-after, I was asked to serve as their Middle East producer based in Tel Aviv. Be careful what you push for…

That time away was the beginning of a burning desire to share what I experienced with a larger audience. It was a world before blogs, social media, smartphones. I documented my journey for a just-launched, which they headlined “A Fortnight with the Multitude” (an earlier version is still up on my first-ever website). This experience would lead to years of pioneering personal storytelling, backpack journalism and bootstrapped documentary filmmaking through emergent digital platforms.

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But everything changed on this most recent trip. I eschewed transcontinental travel, metal detectors, even four-wheeled vehicles — along with social media, e-mail, news and sustained human contact. Constrained by weight on my e-bike, I packed the bare minimum, strapped my guitar to my back and took the Clipper from downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria. Then I biked twenty miles north to Swartz Bay and took a ferry to Mayne Island, circulating around British Columbia’s southern Gulf Islands over the two weeks that followed.

I wasn’t intent on any grand ultimatums or revelations this time. Instead, I ended up seeking stillness. I read a lot of books, and enjoyed a lot of downloaded shows — from the guilty pleasure of Supernatural to the towering inspiration of Netflix’ documentary series Abstract. I also played a lot of guitar, which led to this rough sketch of a composition for my son Hendrix, recorded outside my forest cabin on Pender Island:

And here’s what I noticed: I was no longer pursuing that dopamine thrill of online recognition of my whereabouts, fortitude or cleverness. In my sparing conversations with ferry staff, servers and cashiers I told no one what I did professionally unless specifically asked. I handed out exactly one business card. It sometimes got hard, especially when I missed my family. But it was my own very necessary version of cold turkey, something I was feeling out as I went along. Ultimately, I enjoyed the temporary freedom of deriving any sense of self from my reflection in the eyes of others.

Given this liberation, I was very selfish in my daily choices. I went with whatever occurred to me at the time. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. So in hindsight, it makes sense that my spontaneously-chosen morning music playlist consisted typically of icons who colored outside the lines: Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Joni Mitchell.

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody was calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide

(Joni Mitchell Free Man in Paris)

This led to my devouring a Joni biography in one day (thank you Seattle Public Library e-book lending system!). She’s a superlative musician who developed unorthodox guitar tunings, which only fed her unique worldview. I liked how Joni described her need to regularly pull the rug from out under herself: “If you’re only working off of what you know then you can’t grow. It’s through trial and error that discovery is made.”

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One of the many murals in Chemainus BC

Much further into my professional life now in Seattle than when I made that brash stand so long ago in New York, I do feel the need to stay in the flow. As one of the world-famous designers from the Abstract documentary series observed, there’s always a fear of running out of ideas. “You measure yourself against a lucky moment.” But the best way to counteract that fear is to practice daily the thing you do best — no differently from what an athlete or a musician must do to maintain peak performance. And I’m learning that it’s ideal to do so free from a need to impress someone else.

Recommended books from my retreat:

Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide for Thriving in the Age of Accelerations –Thomas Friedman

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t — Simon Sinek

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — Seth Stephens

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging — Sebastian Junger

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness — Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Heart of the Sea — Nathaniel Philbrick

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words — Malka Marom

A New Earth — Eckhart Tolle

And I read this one before my trip — it’s so relevant to the graduate program I direct that it is now the “Common Book” for our incoming cohort of students:

The Hitmakers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction — Derek Thompson



1 comment

  1. Great article, amazing experiences, and excited for the book recommendations.

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